A few days ago Adrian J. Adams posted a blog article comparing “gadflies” with “scorpions”. In his terminology, both of these are members of homeowner associations who frequently criticize the associations’ governing bodies. Gadflies, says Adams, criticize moderately and constructively, and they are good. Scorpions, he continues, criticize relentlessly, unjustifiably, nastily, and harrassingly, and they are (surprise!) bad.
Not long after Adams posted his blog entry, copies of it showed up in all the message boxes at Berkeley Town House, courtesy of some anonymous benefactor. Each copy had this sentence hand-highlighted in yellow: “As long as a scorpion lives in your association you will need to increase your budget for legal expenses.”
Then yesterday the official bulletin board, protected by a glass shield and a padlock, began sporting an enlarged copy of this same clipping, with yellow highlighting around the final sentences detailing the detestable behavior of, and damage caused by, these human scorpions.
What could this agitation mean? My doctrine is to adopt the most charitable interpretation of ambiguous behaviors, until they are shown wrong or improbable. Consequently, I am not interpreting this message as an analog to the labeling of Tutsis as “cockroaches” in Rwanda in 1994 before almost a million of them were hacked, burned, and shot to death, or the comparison of Jews with rats, spiders, and vermin in Nazi-ruled Europe before and during the Holocaust, or the depiction of internal enemies to be purged as “vermin” and “poisonous weeds” by Stalin. Chirot and McCauley in their 2006 book Why Not Kill Them All? (Princeton University Press) note that referring to people as “animals associated with death or offal”, including “pigs, rats, maggots, cockroaches, and other vermin”, is a way to “elicit disgust”, which is a technique often employed for the motivation of a population to commit, or tolerate, mass murder (p. 80). Scorpions typically use venom to kill their prey, including human beings, so calling a group of humans “scorpions” might qualify as an incitement of the audience to genocide.
If this incident is not pre-genocidal, what might it be? I’d guess it’s part of a campaign to expose and denounce somebody in this housing cooperative whom a few members believe fits the “scorpion” pattern described by Adams. The campaigner seems to think it’s more effective to let people wonder who he or she is, and to let readers imagine who the scorpion or scorpions in their midst may be.
Most amusing about this case is that somebody with a key to the padlock posted a copy on the official bulletin board, which is under the control of the Board of Directors. It fits a pattern: In various cases over the last months accusatory messages have been circulated by the Board of Directors, either explicitly or implicitly presuming somebody guilty of some evil. A few months ago one member accused another of harrassment and physical intimidation, and the accusee denied doing anything more than standing next to the accuser and conversing. The fact that there were two sides to the story didn’t seem to matter to our Board of Directors, which used its bulletin board to declare an emergency and announce that it would be meeting in secret to adopt a new anti-harrassment policy at the accuser’s request, and to warn the accused that she had better stop this behavior or there would be nasty consequences. Similarly, when it received letters attacking a member earlier this year, the Board photocopied them and distributed them to everybody attending the next meeting of the Board; but, when some members wrote rebuttals defending the attacked person and gave those letters to the Board, the Board simply consigned those defenses to oblivion. The clear pattern is that the Directors use their positions to exacerbate and amplify interpersonal accusations, without investigating first. In a sanely governed community, those in charge would work to discourage unjustified or anonymously targeted accusations, rather than giving them a stamp of official approval.